Not all mariachis and margaritas

Andy Porras is a Sacramento freelance writer and former high-school teacher who writes and lectures on hidden Hispanic history

Mention Cinco de Mayo to today’s young Latinos and their Anglo counterparts and you’re bound to get the same answer: party time! It’s not their fault when there’s next to nothing in school curricula that even hints of a connection between U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and Mexican President Benito Juárez during the Civil War.

What America needs is a Cinco de Mayo for Dummies book. Many of us confuse May 5 with September 6, Mexican Independence Day. But Cinco de Mayo’s celebration of the Battle of Puebla, fought between Mexico and France, also celebrates the salvation of America’s union.

On May 5, 1862, the Battle of Puebla shook the Americas. The victory of a ragtag Mexican Army against an elite French military machine was just the start of the story.

The U.S. Civil War was raging, and the United States seemed to be on a path of self-destruction. Meanwhile, President Juárez’s troops were thought to be no match for the invading French, who had not tasted defeat in more than half of a century. Both presidents were desperate for a military miracle.

Noted writers, among them Tejano José Antonio Burciaga and John Shepler, point out that Napoleon III of France shrewdly banked on the fact that the United States, with its Civil War, would not intervene in Mexico.

With state-of-the-art equipment and the French Foreign Legion at his disposal, Napoleon III planned a traditional military assault on Puebla, then on to Mexico City. Once the capital had fallen into French hands, the rest of the country would surrender, and the French forces would march north to aid the Confederacy.

It was quite a plan—taking down two American democracies—but it didn’t count on Texas-born Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza’s nontraditional battle skills and his passionate pleas to Mexican soldiers, mostly Zapotec Indians. Nor did the French have any inkling, writes Texas historian Andrés Tijerina, that Zaragoza would recruit Capt. Porfirio Zamora, from Palito Blanco in South Texas, and his 500 Tejanos. As a cavalry unit, Zaragoza’s forces joined the Mexican army and repelled the French invasion. Los Tejanos, though Mexicans at heart, were U.S. citizens.

After the Civil War ended, U.S. leaders invited the Juárez family to Washington, D.C., in gratitude for their aid. Perhaps someday, both countries will get their historical facts straight and celebrate Cinco de Mayo together—just as their forefathers did.